There are a range of Māori and Pasifika gender identities that do not necessarily conform with Western models. The traditional Māori term ‘takatāpui’, which originally referred to a close companion of the same sex, fell out of use for many decades, but since the 1980s has been reclaimed as an inclusive term used by gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual and intersex Māori women and men. It is a term that encompasses Māori spirituality and culture as well as sexuality.
Those who were born with the wairua (spirit) of a gender different to the one they were assigned at birth may call themselves ‘irawhiti’ (with a gender that changes or is associated with change), ‘whakawāhine’ (creating or becoming a woman), ‘tangata ira tāne’(a person with the spirit or gender of a man), or one of a number of other terms. The contemporary te reo Māori word for transgender people is ‘irawhiti’. This can be used by transgender women, transgender men, and those with non-binary genders. ‘Ira kore’ is the term used by those who don’t identify with any gender.
Transgender people have traditionally been an accepted part of Māori and Pasifika societies. In modern times, trans people in some Pacific countries have been able to change their gender on legal documents and access gender-affirming healthcare, but in some countries acceptance does not extend to legal protections.
As well as Samoan fa’afāfine and fa’atama, Pacific gender-diverse identities include fakaleiti in Tonga, māhū in Hawaii, māhū or rae rae in Tahiti, akava'ine or laelae in Cook Islands, vaka sa lewa lewa in Fiji and fiafifine in Niue. Some of these terms have been used as slurs and are still being reclaimed, and therefore may be considered offensive. Others have firmly positive associations.
Together I am everything I am
Elizabeth Kerekere completed interviews for her PhD with trans people who identified with the takatāpui identity, and their whānau members. One Ngāti Kuri rangatahi told her: 'Takatāpui means that first and foremost, I’m Māori. Then I’m everything else but together I am everything I am. I am queer, I am Māori and I am tangata ira tane [a trans man]. And I have this entire community backing me up whenever I use that identity.'1
Since 2019, Statistics New Zealand has enabled takatāpui to identify themselves as such when filling in household surveys.
In Samoa, fa’afāfine are people who were assigned male at birth and who are feminine in varying ways. Many, but not all, are women. Fa’afāfine have been an integrated part of Samoan communities for centuries. The term ‘fa’afafine’ translates as ‘in the manner of a woman’. Fa’atama – men who were assigned female at birth – have much less visibility, with the first public gathering of fa’atama held in Samoa in 2017.
Fa’afāfine in Samoa
In traditional Samoan contexts, preference for feminine tasks by a child thought to be a boy will usually be recognised at an early age. After being acknowledged as fa’afafine, the child is likely to transition – including wearing women’s clothing, dancing the siva (a traditional dance usually performed wearing a feathered headdress), and fulfilling feminine roles within the village. Fa’afāfine are accepted as women in many contexts, but they may also undertake masculine tasks or fulfil men’s roles. Fa’afāfine often remain in their family homes and care for their parents.
Because of Samoan culture’s strong base in the Christian church, fa’afāfine in modern Samoa can be marginalised. However, fa’afāfine beauty pageants are very popular. These draw on the tradition of gaining social recognition through entertainment, while also providing a way to raise funds for community organisations such as those combating HIV/AIDS or running the local rest home.
Fa’afāfine in Aotearoa New Zealand
Migrant Samoans often encounter difficulties while adjusting to life in New Zealand. Fa’afāfine can experience additional problems because Western gender systems do not easily recognise transgender women, and particularly transgender women who also perform tasks typically associated with men. In New Zealand, some fa’afāfine try to conform to conventional expressions of masculinity, including dressing as men, taking up masculine occupations, and having relationships with women. However, those who continue to identify as fa’afafine are likely to eventually discard this masculinity to varying degrees.
Some fa’afāfine access gender-affirming healthcare, such as hormones that result in the growth of breasts. Some New Zealand-based fa’afāfine choose to enact femininity but not identify as or be read as women. Non-binary identities and gender ambivalence have become increasingly possible as a result of growing acceptance of cultural and gender diversity in New Zealand, and the creation of media specifically about fa’afāfine.
Connections and support
Most migrant fa’afāfine remain part of their Samoan families and communities in New Zealand. They also maintain networks with fa’afāfine and other transgender or rainbow communities. Fa’afāfine have been regular participants in rainbow-pride festivals and parades. The Love Life Fono (meeting), organised by the New Zealand AIDS Foundation since 2005, brings together leaders and members from Pasifika sexual-orientation and gender-minority communities to discuss important issues.